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A Massive Explosion Rocks Lebanon's Capital, Beirut

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

An enormous explosion at the port in Beirut, Lebanon, has left widespread damage. The cause is unknown, but videos posted online showed a fire, some small explosions and then a big blast.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Lebanese health ministry says at least 70 people were killed and 3,000 were injured - all this in a country that has few resources to respond to this. Lebanon is dealing with an economic crisis, a cash shortage and the coronavirus.

VANEK SMITH: We're joined now by journalist Nada Homsi in Beirut.

Hi, Nada.

NADA HOMSI: Hi. How are you?

VANEK SMITH: Nada, from what I understand, you were over a mile away from this explosion, but there was still extensive damage. What did you see or hear?

HOMSI: Yeah. I was at home when the first explosion hit. And then it was followed by a much stronger and louder second explosion that - my windows and doors shattered and exploded, and the entire building shook.

VANEK SMITH: Whoa.

HOMSI: I went out into the street. It was completely devastated with glass everywhere. The facade and interior of all the storefronts were completely destroyed, and people were utterly in shock. My neighbor was holding her baby, walking around barefoot, crying and looking for her husband. No one knew what the source of the explosions was. We thought at first that the blast happened in our neighborhood or really nearby. It's important to stress that I live more than a mile away from the port. That gives you an idea of how widespread the damage was. So it's hard to overemphasize the scale. Entire neighborhoods, block after block - basically, miles of Beirut were damaged or destroyed.

VANEK SMITH: We said...

HOMSI: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...That the cause of this explosion was unknown. But have officials offered any clues?

HOMSI: No, we don't know yet what caused it, but the director general of security did rule out an Israeli airstrike. And the prime minister said recently on live TV that those responsible for the explosion in the warehouse were going to be held accountable. He said that materials that caused the explosion have been there since 2014. There had been some concern about the buildings for a few years, and he said that an investigation would be launched to look into who is responsible.

VANEK SMITH: Wow. How...

HOMSI: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...Is Lebanon going to be able to deal with the thousands of injured people and also the rebuilding that will have to happen after this?

HOMSI: Yeah. This is obviously a really bad time for Lebanon - couldn't have happened at a worse time. To be really honest, Lebanon is a country in the process of collapsing. It's dealing with severe financial and economic crisis with hyper-inflation. And the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated all of that, not to mention a massive electricity shortage throughout the country. Hospitals are calling for blood, but some of the hospitals were so - were damaged, including one that's the main treatment center for COVID-19, which - already...

VANEK SMITH: Oh.

HOMSI: The hospital was struggling under the weight of the amount of patients that it has. And with a medicine shortage due to the economic crisis, hospitals everywhere are struggling to get medicines they need already due to coronavirus. So this is only going to exacerbate that because the amount of dead and injured is only expected to go up. The health minister told local media recently that they're actually sourcing field hospitals from the World Health Organization and from Qatar. That gives you an idea of how hospitals are really not equipped to deal with a huge flow of injured people, which is, again, just expected to go up in the coming days.

VANEK SMITH: Nada Homsi in Beirut, please take care, and thank you.

HOMSI: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: The Lebanese government has announced that one of the buildings at the port contained large quantities of ammonium nitrate and said it was imposing a state of emergency in the city. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.